by Angeliska on August 8, 2013
August 8th is the twenty-seventh anniversary of my mother’s death. Every year when this day rolls around again I take stock of the condition of my heart, and pause to consider my path – the one that has led me from the womb to whatever I may find on the road ahead. Two infinite eights, a snaky double lemniscate, always a fierce harbinger of sweltering dog days and thick dark storm clouds, heavy with memory. Although this year, something has changed – the air has shifted somehow, and I find a weight has been lifted off somehow. Somewhere in the depths of my broken heart, a strange and solemn joy has been unfolding feathered pinions. I think this is what’s known as… healing. Every year that I’ve taken the time to honor the day of my mother’s passing, I’ve grown a little, learned some, healed a bit. I realize how angry I was at her, for so long – for leaving me, for not saying goodbye properly, even though she had plenty of opportunity to (or so I thought). Children are self-absorbed, thinking the whole world revolves around them – and so, for a long time I never took the time to imagine what it must have been like for her. How terrifying, to be dying, to be leaving everything you knew and loved. The enormity of saying goodbye. I didn’t realize then how many people dying from a terminal illness are so consumed with their sickness and pain, not to mention contemplating the imminent termination of their mortal sojourn, that tying up loose ends and saying impossible goodbyes often go by the wayside. What words could possibly make it better, anyhow? Well, I can think of a few. All my life, people who were close to my mom have informed me about how much she loved me. My brain registered their words, but my heart wasn’t convinced. I thought that if my mother had truly loved me, she would have fought harder to stay alive, to stay with me. Or, at least, she would have taken me aside and said all the things that would prove that she really cared. I think now that maybe she’s been saying them to me all along, whispering them in my ears, brushing my hair out of my sullen face – I was just too hurt and mad to hear it.
I randomly came across the last letter my mother ever wrote to me on July 3rd of this year. It was written about a month before she died – dated July 3, 1986. I found it 27 years later, to the day. You can tell she was really hurting because her handwriting is so shaky. Her words reaching out to me from across the void, through the ether. I had read it plenty of times before, over the years – but it had been awhile. I saw different things in it than I was able to perceive before – reading between those lines meant for a child’s mind, the pain and longing bleeding over into her penmanship. She wanted to hear from me so badly. I did see the fireworks, and I did go to the Watts Towers, which I loved and still love. Somewhere I have a cassette tape we recorded as an audio letter to my parents. I’ve only ever listened to it once, because it’s so painful to hear my squeaky little voice trying so hard to sound jubilant and brave. We were all hiding our hurt and longing from each other, too well. Every night that I curled up on my cot in my grandparent’s North Hollywood guest-room that summer, I ached for her, calling to her with every fibre of my tiny heart. They had sent me away while she was settled into hospice in Lone Grove, preparing for the descent into the underworld. It was too much for me to have to see her that way, and they were protecting me, I suppose. Years later, my grandmother told me that around the time she wrote this letter, that she had called in the middle of the night and begged for them to put me on a plane the next morning, to send me back to her. She needed to see me, wanted me near. My grandmother told her that we had big plans to go to Disneyland the next day, and that there was no way she could disappoint me and my cousin Caleb, because we were so excited about seeing Mickey Mouse. Grandma said it was one of the biggest regrets of her entire life, not just calling a halt to our plans, and heeding my dying mother’s last wishes. Hearing that story from her was like being punched in the gut. I never knew. Maybe if I had come then, she could have told me all the things I wanted to hear from her lips in person, but by the time they finally sent me back to Texas, she was so weak and diminished. Her seizures had gotten bad, and her mind was clouded with painkillers. She died not long after. Even before I knew all that, I had found Disneyland to be hugely disappointing. None of the magic was real. Everything was plastic and robotic and overpriced and crowded and stupid. I hated everything about it (except for the haunted mansion, pirates and abominable snowmen, I guess.) So that’s why I loathe Disneyland. Because I could have seen my mother one last time when she was still able to talk to me. And Mickey Mouse fucking stole that from me.
I wear this chrysocolla flower cuff she made all the time. Her work was so exacting, every detail thought out and perfectly executed. Every piece I make is an exercise in following in her footsteps. I’m not so much a perfectionist myself, but in my mind, I imagine her scrutinizing my handiwork. I want everything to be as flawless as possible, to meet her high standards of aesthetic and craftsmanship.
I used to paw through this box of jewels when I was a child, imagining that my mother was some kind of royalty in hiding, to be in possession of such marvelous gems… All glass & paste, but precious to me.
My mother collected broken china plates that she had my Grampy grind and shape on a wheel into cabochons for her jewelry. I inherited this legacy from both of them, and am continuing their work as best as I am able.
I made this sterling silver & porcelain cuff for Mlle. Dana Sherwood’s birthday. The china piece was one of those cut by my Grampy for my mama back when she was alive & making jewelry. She didn’t live long enough to use them all, so that’s partly why I wanted to learn how.
Another piece I made for someone I love. None of these pieces will ever be sold, but instead only go as gifts to those I consider to be family. In giving them a piece of jewelry made from this old china, I am sharing a piece of my mother, of my grandfather with them. These silver threads connect us.
I think you can tell a lot about who someone is by what they love, by their taste, by what they collect & are drawn to. Material objects can be powerful emblems of identity & memory. With that in mind, I present to you, my mother. I didn’t find this list until a few years ago. It’s kind of crazy how similar we are in our tastes, and so many other things. Though, it’s really no surprise that what she loved, I also adore. Acorn, meet tree.
Things I Really Like
Perfume (certain brands) esp. “orientals”
Scented soaps and powder
Sexy panties and bras (black + red)
Blue Mirror glass
Flowers – especially “old” roses, iris + carnations
Nice cowboy boots + hats
Books (art, architecture, cars, plants + music)
Like to read: social commentary
Cadillacs from 1948-1952
Lamps and light fixtures
1940′s + 1950′s stuff – especially music, cars, + housewares (clothes too)
Jackets that look like riding habits
real cotton velvet
“Hotel” dishes (esp. Syracuse China)
glass-stopper perfume bottles
cats + some dogs; horses
fine stringed instruments
colored aluminum dishes
Shoes with ankle straps
fine leather goods
Glass brick, spanish tile, stucco
Today, instead of doing what I normally do on August the 8th – (isolating myself with my grief, processing, crying over old letters) I decided to treat myself nicely for a change, to celebrate her life, and do things she might do if she were still alive. I got my hair did the day before, got a massage from a dear friend, went out for gelato, hung out with my dad, and made a pilgrimage to the Elisabet Ney Museum – one of my mama’s favorite places, and mine too.
There’s a really sweet man in my life who knows me better than I know myself sometimes. He brought me fancy breakfast and roses (with the best moniker ever: HIGH AND MAGIC!) this morning because he knew that today is often a hard day for me. I usually don’t tend to share this day with anyone, but it was so nice showing him around my mom’s old stomping ground. We drove past the house where I was conceived and lived until the age of 3. He was so sweet and kind to me, and it felt good to go on adventures together instead of just brooding by myself all day. I think about this piece Cheryl Strayed (aka. Dear Sugar) wrote to a man asking how he could better be there for his partner who had lost her mother. I think it’s a really helpful thing to read for anyone who loves anyone who’s ever lost someone:
Or, if you’d prefer to hear her read it aloud to you, there’s this:
The Black Arc Of It – from Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed
And by the way, if you haven’t read that book yet, please do. It has saved my life a hundred times over, and taught me so much. Oh, and yeah – I do quote something or other from it pretty much every year on this day. She just knows. Cheryl Strayed is the official President of the Motherless Daughters Coalition for Healing Your Own Goddamn Broken Heart. Pretty much because I say so.
My mother’s best friend was a magical woman named Lenore Nier, who lived in New York and loved purple and was a poet. She died of cancer, the same scourge that killed my mother, less than ten years later. She always used to send me postcards and letters from museums with her favorite paintings. Such a lovely woman. This poem to my mom was sent amidst a flurry of sympathy cards (which I used to disdain as mere Hallmark pity, but now wish people still sent each other. It’s a nice gesture, dammit.) It was inscribed on the inside of a card with a holographic rainbow unicorn on it, which I remember coveting. I have it now.
Roses and Crystals (To Maggie)
Go in love, go in peace.
You’ve left your love
Across the miles,
My house is filled with your souvenirs,
Your rings and your art.
You saved my cat when she was hurt.
You were a rainbow,
Roses and crystals,
Now you lay dying across the miles.
In love you die, to love you go.
Sad vigil’s end.
You were a prism of colored lights,
But now you’re light. Your love will live –
Your crystals and roses,
Your art and music,
Your husband and child.
In the end we all follow our lonely roads.
I wish you peace
(August 2 and 12, 1986
Brentwood, New York)
For so long, I have longed to communicate with her spirit, to hear her voice again. In dreams and visions, I manifest antique telephones and elaborate devices to facilitate our otherworldly conversations. I recently reread a vivid dream I had a while back, where I found her standing in my kitchen fiddling with an archaic radio set. She firmly tells me that it is time to put this thing back together, to get it working again. Her hair is hennaed even redder and pulled up into a bouncy ponytail. She’s wearing little shorts and a t-shirt and looks so young and cute. She’s intent upon the pieces of the communication device in her hands, and in her familiar voice and cadence, she says, “Oh, it’s fallen into disrepair – the metal has become corroded over time.” I grab her hands as she’s inspecting it closer and stand up to embrace her, saying, “Mommie, I miss you so, so, so much. I’ve missed you every single day.” I hug her and kiss her face all over. We are the same height now. I think she’s too surprised to know what to say.
I feel like recently, I finally broke through the membrane separating us: I had a profound experience where I was able to deeply commune with her spirit. During a powerful meditation, I found myself focusing on the mystery of motherhood and the magic of the crone. I was thinking especially about the amazing old women in my life, and how much love and respect I have for them. I was imagining myself growing elderly, my body’s inevitable decay. I thought about my aunt, who I adore – my mother’s sister. She lovingly took care of both my grandparents until their deaths, and I thought about what an honor it is to get to be present with someone you love, to return the favor of the care they bestowed upon you when you were small. To tenderly wash the aged body, the sagging breasts that you once fed from, the withered belly that you lived in, the weakened arms that once held and carried you. It hit me for the first time that I would never have the chance to experience my mother that way – that I would never, ever see her as an old woman, her auburn hair turned to silver, her face creased with lines, skin turned to crepe paper. I wept and wept for her, for the deep longing, the raw missing of her. So visceral, the clutching, reaching towards the body that you came from, the door where you came in. I grieved for her like a lost infant, and felt that ancient child’s cry bubbling up in my chest: “I…WANT…MY…MOMMIE!” She was the one I screamed for in the middle of the night when I was scared after a bad dream. I remember realizing with sorrow and shock soon after she had died that I would never be able to call to her in the night again. That she would never be able to come to me and comfort me, ever, from this point forward. The finality of death is hard for a little kid to comprehend, but I understood then what it meant. She was gone, permanently.
In the night, in the midst of that vision, I feel like she came to me: first, through her emblems, the sweet roses painted on fine china. Her symbols, the images that embody her spirit now – they flooded through me in psychedelic sunset waves of cactus flowers swirling like galaxies, emitting cascades of sparks and shooting stars. Fiorucci angels winking behind heart-shaped sunglasses and glamourous starlets with their hair in victory rolls, chorus lines of pink flamingos, and roseate flaming vintage dreamboat cars arcing through the sky like comets, like fireworks. She came to me through all this glory, and held me close. In her mimosa honey and tabasco voice, she told me everything I ever wanted to hear, everything I ever wanted to know. I know, now, completely, incontrovertibly, utterly: how much my mother loved me, still loves me. How precious I am to her. That I am the best thing she ever made, the rarest jewel in her treasure chest. I know that now, and I have to remember to carry it with me all the time, and never forget it. I told her how sad I am that she’s not alive right now, that she’s not in my world, awake and breathing in this life. She would be 66 years old. She tells me, “Y’know, it’s okay, baby. It really is. I’m at peace with it.” She tells me that she had had enough of the wisdom found in pain and suffering and sitting with the reality of her body breaking down, that she’s glad she died at her prime, when she was the most beautiful, that she didn’t have to know what it was to be an old lady. If she had, she would have been someone else, and I would have become someone else, too. It would have been a different story. And her story ended right where it was supposed to. She tells me that she’s free now, that she can go anywhere. In knowing that, in hearing the echoing truth of it resounding deep in my bones, I was able to finally let her soul go fly off joyfully to where it wants to be. For the first time in my entire life, I felt a sense of acceptance, and peace. It was so simple, and so profound – I watched her kind of shrug her thin white shoulders, and lips curved in that secretive Mona Lisa half-smile as she waved goodbye. Before she flew away, I caught a glimpse of that place where she lives eternally now, and it is so unimaginably goddamn beautiful.
My mother’s blue heaven is this: her fantasy dream car, a 1949 Cadillac Series 62 Coupe de Ville is pulled over on the side of a lonely country road, out in between the corn and cotton fields. It is dusk, the sky a pure Maxfield Parrish periwinkle, deepening into cobalt and indigo, where silvery stars have just begun to glitter. At the horizon, the last shades of a brilliant sunset are fading into gold and dusty rose, and the bats and barn-swallows are chasing junebugs and mayflies in the darkening air. The headlamps of the Caddy illuminate my mother’s cowboy boots, and her favorite Hank Williams song is playing on the radio, competing with the fiddling crickets. She’s laughing and dancing with a long tall stranger, kicking up her heels in the dust of this perfect deserted twilight place. Out there in the wild blue yonder, where she’s dancing now – forever.
Hank Williams – When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels
If you’d like to read more about my mama, here you go: